How do we as a society enable the decision makers we elect to make good decisions on our behalf? One way is by appointing people and having organisations set up to provide clear, non-partisan information – for example, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. How a government chooses to use information is of course up to the government of the day, and it will be influenced by many factors from economic realities through to political ideologies.
In Aotearoa New Zealand, we have a strong affinity for our natural environment – our land, ocean and rivers. It is important to our wellbeing, our economy and our sense of identity. There are many non-government organisations (NGOs) and government agencies that work to protect our environment. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment serves as the government’s environmental watchdog.
Members of Parliament and citizens have a right to information underlying our environmental actions and their consequences so they can hold governments to account for decisions made and decisions postponed.Rt Hon Simon Upton, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment
The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment
The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has broad powers to investigate environmental concerns and the work of government environmental agencies. To do this, the Commissioner is independent of the government of the day and reports to Parliament as a whole rather than a single minister.
Commissioners are appointed for a 5-year term. The Right Honourable Simon Upton was appointed for a second 5-year term in October 2022. The previous Commissioners have been Helen Hughes, Dr Morgan Williams and Dr Jan Wright.
The Commissioner’s role is unique
The Commissioner’s role is different from the roles of government environmental agencies – the Ministry for the Environment, Environmental Protection Authority and Department of Conservation.
The office was established to provide members of Parliament with independent and robust advice about environmental matters. All of this advice is directed to maintain or improve the quality of Aotearoa New Zealand’s environment.
The government is not required to implement any of the recommendations contained in the Commissioner’s advice. Decisions to change environmental law and policy are the responsibility of government, and implementing these decisions and monitoring their impact on the environment is the responsibility of government agencies.
The functions of the Commissioner are drawn from environmental legislation, and the Commissioner has wide discretion to exercise them. They include to:
- review the system of agencies and processes set up by the government to manage the country’s resources and report to the House of Representatives
- investigate the effectiveness of environmental planning and management by public authorities and advise on remedial action
- investigate any matter where the environment may be or has been adversely affected, advise on preventive measures or remedial action and report to the House of Representatives
- report on a request from the House or any select committee on any petition, Bill or other matter that may have a significant effect on the environment
- inquire, on the direction of the House, into any matter that has had or may have a substantial and damaging effect on the environment
- undertake and encourage the collection and dissemination of information about the environment
- encourage preventive measures and remedial actions to protect the environment.
Knowing more does not necessarily lead to doing more, nor does spending more money on a problem mean we are fixing it. What matters for environmental stewardship is how effectively any expenditure is supporting the health and resilience of the environment. Better information is one of the pillars that can support this.Rt Hon Simon Upton, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment
What does the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment do?
The Commissioner is assisted by a small team who possess a wide range of skills and knowledge. The multidisciplinary team specialise in fields as varied as biology, business, chemistry, ecology, economics, forestry, finance, geography, geology, history, law, literature, marine science, mātauranga Māori, physics, planning, policy, politics, resource management, social science, tikanga Māori and water modelling.
The core work of the office is to provide advice to decision makers that maintains or improves the quality of the environment. Reports and advice drawn from environmental investigations form the backbone of the work programme along with submissions on proposed law changes and government agency policy proposals.
Reports may contain recommendations to Ministers or be purely informative. They may aim to change policies, provide guidance or education, raise awareness of issues flying under the radar, redefine problems or shift the conversation, or kickstart action on a topic. The Commissioner and his staff work hard to ensure the reports are accurate and that any recommendations are both practical and likely to be effective.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment website has a number of downloadable reports that will be of interest to teachers and students. These include:
- Knowing what’s out there: Regulating the environmental fate of chemicals
- Space invaders: A review of how New Zealand manages weeds that threaten native ecosystems – a look at some of the key findings and possible solutions is outlined in Tackling weeds to safeguard native ecosystems
- On a pathway to extinction? An investigation into the status and management of the longfin eel
- Biodegradable and compostable plastics in the environment – information that looks at bioplastics
- Managing our estuaries – a report on protecting our estuaries
- Evaluating the use of 1080: Predators, poisons and silent forests – a report that looks at the wicked problem of 1080
- Taonga of an island nation: Saving New Zealand’s birds.
The Commissioner has strong powers to obtain information. The Commissioner can request information that is not publicly available from any organisation or person. If the information is not provided, the Commissioner can summon people to be examined under oath.
This power to obtain information comes with a duty of secrecy. The Commissioner will only disclose the information obtained if it is judged necessary for carrying out their functions.
The Commissioner can make recommendations but cannot require their implementation.
Nature of science
The role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment highlights the importance of understanding the nature of science. To participate within the society we live in – whether as politicians, scientists or students – we need to understand the nature of science and the socially and culturally embedded aspects of it.
In this PLD article, read about socially and culturally embedded aspects of the nature of science and other tenets of the nature of science.
To provide an accessible bridge between science, society and government, New Zealand has the Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister. Learn more about The Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.
Learn more about the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment on their website. Additional to many of the long-form reports are easy to read FAQ sheets and other news items.
The report Environmental reporting, research and investment: Do we know if we’re making a difference? will be of particular interest for those keen to delve deeper into the nature of science aspects of the Commissioner’s work. Auditor-General John Ryan reflects on this report and the relationship between public accountability and outcomes in this blog.
This resource has been created from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment website, with support from the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.